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Later Start Times, Less Homework: Here’s What Elite Schools Are Doing To Help Students Cope With Stress

Johnson said that social-emotional learning is also behind all of the district's instructional goals. For example, Johnson said the district helps students understand the importance of good attendance, serving the community, collaborating with others and building effective communication skills.

Outside of academic courses, Johnson said the district provides support for students who might need extra services to help them be successful for life after high school.

"The state's passage of SEL standards is beneficial because now, there is an expected focus on this area," Johnson said. "The SEL standards change the way schools think, because now all schools are expected to incorporate these standards."

In addition, Johnson said incorporating SEL in the district's curriculum gives students opportunities to develop and improve their interpersonal skills, such as effective communication, problem-solving and critical thinking.

"Students work and collaborate in groups in and out of the classroom, participate in team and project-based learning, and develop soft skills as part of internships and other workplace learning experiences," Johnson said.

RESEARCHING THE PROBLEM Ryan Bretag, the director of instructional innovation at Glenbrook High Schools District 225, said officials in recent years have taken a "deep dive" into the area of student wellness.

For example, after officials held focus groups designed to combat student stress, some suggested that limiting teens' constant access to their grades and assessments, which they get on a digital portal, might provide some relief. But the experiment, which included hundreds of student participants, garnered mixed results, Bretag said, leading officials to conclude that there is not a one-size-fits all model for dealing with student stress.

"For every student who said the grade book caused them stress and anxiety, there was another student who said it was important and of value, and they had more anxiety when it was taken away," Bretag said.

Indeed, experts warn that high schools should not be insulating teens from experiencing every kind of discomfort and hardship.

Many parents, some say, are trying to create a life for their children in which they never fail, nor experience disappointment.

As a result, their children are not developing the resilience they will need to cope with college and life beyond, said Dr. Carol Weitzman, a pediatrician and researcher at Yale University.

Parents can support teens by avoiding the temptation to intervene and rescue them from stressful situations that they should be learning to tackle on their own, Weitzman said.

"The truth is, if parents say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to come rescue you,' every time their child is stressed, it is giving their child the message that, 'You can't cope very well and you constantly need protection, because you have no ability to manage this on your own.' "

Teachers and administrators are also looking at how to manage the delicate balance between providing enough support and allowing kids the space they need to develop.

School districts Lyons Township High School and Hinsdale High School District 86 have had experts from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence conduct social emotional learning workshops for staff members in recent months.

The presentations have covered how to recognize and manage emotions, differentiating between good stress and bad stress, and teaching skills that will help students not only academically but also to become more well-rounded, compassionate and successful adults.

OTHER PATHS TO PEACE Some of the other strategies are more esoteric.

Students at John Hersey High School often drop by counselor Brigette Muck's office seeking stress relief through an array of aromatherapy products she makes available along with stress balls and mindfulness coloring books.

"Everyone needs their safe haven, and sometimes, the nurse actually has the student in her office with a stomachache, and suggests, 'maybe you can talk to a counselor for a few minutes,' " Muck said.

At Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., a mentorship program pairs freshmen with upperclassmen mentors. And though competitive sports can add to some kids' stress, for others it's an important way to relieve it. Andy Pape, a student at Maine South, says playing hockey can be a welcome distraction from academics.

"It's very nice having a sport to play or something to do because it takes you away from school work, pressure and anxiety," he said. "You get to not think about it during practice or games."

Some students also are taking classes intended to help ease their anxiety. Sadhana Panuganti, the parent of a middle school student and a Naperville North graduate, teaches a meditation class for youth on Mondays at the Alive Community Center in Naperville.

Panuganti, who is affiliated with the Heartfulness Institute, said teens are facing stress from social pressures, as well as expectations from parents and teachers.

"Sometimes it can be overwhelming," she said.

Meditation gives youth the tools to empower them to fight the "flight" response that is triggered when students experience stress. She said by calming them down, students can see the situation from a different perspective. "We teach them to cope with all their feelings," Panuganti said.

Panuganti said she would love to see schools introduce a time for meditation during the school day. She said she's heard of schools in other states embracing meditation as a stress reducer and is hopeful more schools in Illinois will do the same.

In Park Ridge, it's also about finding ways to balance academics with lighter moments.

David Berendt, assistant principal of students at Maine South, said the school tries to create seasonal assemblies, like the one held during homecoming week, in which students compete against faculty members in unusual games such as a trivia contest in which a correct answer results in a face full of pie for each of the deans.

"High school is important, but it's also an important time for kids to have a good time," Berendt said. "We provide as much of that as we can."

ONE STUDENT'S STORY Despite the growing number and variety of high school programs targeting stress and anxiety, some students need more serious intervention.

Such was the case for Carolyn Russell's daughter. By the time Leila had hit her sophomore year at Deerfield High School, the teen, who had previously been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, was also suffering from debilitating school-related anxiety.

"I would get a call, 'Mom, I need to come home because I can't breathe,' " Russell said. "And then it was the migraines ... I even took her to a neurologist."

Last year, Leila's anxiety became so severe she fell into a pattern that some therapists call "school refusal," prompting Russell to place the teen in an outpatient program at Amita Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.

Among the primary goals of the program is to "help teens to learn to manage stress, and to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable sometimes," said Jacqueline Rhew, the clinical liaison at Amita Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital.

"By developing strategies, the teens develop confidence, and they start to see they can manage their stress with coping skills," Rhew added.

By the end of the 2016-17 school year, Leila, who is now 17, had completed the program, which included individual and group counseling, academic tutoring and recreational therapy.

In addition, therapists partner with parents, school officials and other resources, said Patrick McGrath, a clinical psychologist, and the co-director of the program at Amita Alexian Brothers.

While Leila's anxiety could be treated through an out-patient program, for other teens suffering from serious mental health issues, inpatient hospitalization is sometimes the only alternative, McGrath said.

Currently the hospital's 32-bed inpatient adolescent unit in Hoffman Estates is filled, as is a six-bed unit at their hospital in Hinsdale, Rhew said.

The teens getting inpatient treatment have been diagnosed with serious mental health disorders, McGrath said, and frequently doctors are treating more than one mental health issue in a patient.

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